Two state-level policy actions this week failed to clarify the murky future of nuclear in the U.S.

The Minnesota House of Representatives failed to vote on a bill allowing Xcel Energy to recover the costs of maintaining nuclear plants before the utility spends money.

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy signed off on a law that gives nuclear plants in that state a lifeline; they will now be considered under the Zero Emissions Certificate (ZEC) program. 

In Minnesota, a state official cautioned that the bill would give Xcel a “blank check.” New Jersey Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, called the law there “a down payment” on the clean energy agenda he’s promised.

Meanwhile, the debate about the future of nuclear continues at the highest levels of government. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sorts through comments on its resilience docket, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is reportedly investigating multiple options to keep struggling nuclear and coal plants open.

Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey cautioned state lawmakers that plants were at risk of closing without support. Xcel said the Minnesota bill would offer the utility more certainty in order to keep reactors running.

The Minnesota law would have supported three Xcel reactors with licenses operating through 2030, 2033 and 2034, with projected costs ringing in at about $1.4 billion.

Critics, including Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, argued the law would undercut the public utility commission’s authority. The Senate passed its bill last week, but time ran out in the House.

Xcel said the reactors are key to its plans to reach 85 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030. The utility recently reported it had reached a 40 percent carbon-free portfolio.

Detractors questioned New Jersey’s law for similar reasons, calling it a handout to the utility. Jeff Tittel, director at the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, said it was “the biggest corporate subsidy in state history.” It will amount to subsidies of about $300 million per year. 

In 2016, New Jersey got about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, according to the Energy Information Administration. Minnesota got about 23 percent of its electricity from nuclear in 2017.

A similar subsidy program in New York that allows nuclear to take advantage of ZEC credits is now winding its way through the court of appeals. A nuclear ZEC program in Illinois is also facing a court challenge.   

Exelon Corporation, which is also fighting for the Illinois and New York programs, applauded the new law in New Jersey. Xcel promised it would push forward with its low-carbon vision regardless of the loss in its home state. 

"We're disappointed the bill did not move forward due to time constraints at the Legislature, but we will continue to pursue our clean energy vision,” the utility said in a statement.